Melissa Simon

Times-Standard

Caltrans is working on a response to the North Coast Regional Water Quality Board’s suggestions to help offset mitigation delays related to the Willits Bypass project.

”Caltrans is looking at the water board’s suggestions and are anticipating on sending a response letter in a couple weeks,” said Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie. “Because we have already increased the amount of mitigation - by creating and enhancing an additional 25 acres of wetlands as well as removing another fish barrier from Ryan Creek - we are working on a reply to the water board to accurately show all the additional mitigation we are already doing, while taking their suggestions into consideration.”

In a March 18 letter, the water board suggested Caltrans accelerate mitigation efforts, reduce project impacts or provide additional mitigation, according to Stephen Bargsten, the board’s senior environmental scientist.

”These are options that provide possibilities for Caltrans to compensate for mitigation delays,” Bargsten said. “In no way can the board dictate the method or manner in which Caltrans completes the project.”

Frisbie said Caltrans has been working with the water board for years to develop a draft plan that included all the changes the agency was asked to address.

”We had addressed everything they asked us to and didn’t hear anything until September 2013, with a list of hundreds of comments, some which we had never heard of before,” Frisbie said. “We jumped in to address those issues, but it seems like there are always some new issues to address.”

The Willits Bypass project adds more than six miles of new highway, including two new interchanges, to the east of the Mendocino city’s downtown to reroute traffic, which can become backed up in the current series of traffic signals. Two of the four lanes are estimated to be completed by fall 2016, according to Frisbie.

Redwood Nation Earth First! spokeswoman Naomi Wagner said 80 percent of the impact from the project has already taken place.

”(The impact) includes cutting down 1,200 trees and losing salmon because of the failure of sediment control,” Wagner said. “We want to reduce impacts on the north end while we still can because they haven’t finished construction there, and that’s where the wetlands are.”

Wagner added that reducing the number of lanes from four to two and using a roundabout would save costs. Frisbie said changing the number of lanes would cost more, and the wetlands impacted have already been affected.

”If we were to redesign the project at this point, in order to try to restore the wetlands, we would have to remove the fill and find native top soil, but we couldn’t remove the wick drains,” Frisbie said. “This would actually end up costing more money, not saving any.”

Caltrans and the board have weekly mitigation meetings, and Bargsten said the two agencies are trying to complete the plan so work can continue.